(Photo: REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool)
Fairness was a central theme in President Barack Obama's State of the Union address to Congress Tuesday night.
"We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by," Obama said. "Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."
Among Obama's proposals to achieve those goals is a tax rate on income over one million dollars that should not be allowed to go below 30 percent. The top tax rate for families making more than about $250,000 is currently 37 percent, but after taking into account deductions and credits, some of the wealthy can pay much lower than that.
Billionaire investor Warren Buffett wrote an editorial last summer in which he complained that he pays a lower rate than some of his workers. To highlight his proposal to increase taxes on millionaires, Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, was invited to the address and sat next to the wife of the late Steve Jobs, Laurene Powell Jobs.
Obama also complained about the extension of a tax cut for those with income in the top bracket. Obama signed that extension in December 2010 as part of a bargain with Republicans to extend tax cuts for all the brackets. For everyone else, those making less than $250,000, Obama proposed making those tax cuts, set to expire at the end of this year, permanent.
Among the Republican response to the State of the Union address, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels said it is appropriate to ask the wealthy to contribute to reducing government debt and saving entitlements, but there are "smart ways and dumb ways." The dumb way is to increase rates in "a broken, grossly complex tax system, choking off growth without bringing in the revenues we need to meet our debts." The smart way is to eliminate preferences in the tax code for the wealthy.
One of the biggest applause lines from Republicans came when Obama proposed expanding energy production on public lands. He said he would open up 75 percent of the potential offshore oil and gas resources.
Obama also spoke positively about America's natural gas resources. These proposals will likely be controversial with environmentalists. A new technique called "fracking" has been developed by the natural gas industry which can provide greater access to the energy source. Environmentalists worry, though, that the method contaminates ground water.
There was no mention of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada to refineries in Texas. Obama recently decided to kill the project over environmental concerns. Republicans and some moderate Democrats have been critical of the president's decision, arguing it would spur economic and job growth.
Obama also called for less gridlock in Congress, asking its members to "lower the temperature in this town."
To help reduce obstruction in Congress, he asked the Senate to pass a rule that would eliminate filibusters for presidential appointments. These filibusters were also an issue during the George W. Bush administration when Democratic senators were filibustering 12 of Bush's judicial appointments. A bipartisan compromise was reached at the time, but Obama, who was a senator, was not part of that compromise.
Obama began and ended his speech with praise for the service of America's armed forces. Speaking specifically of the troops who recently came home from Iraq, he said they, "made the United States safer and more respected around the world."
Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords, who was shot in Tuscon, Ariz., a year ago this month, was in attendance. She recently decided to resign from office to focus on her recovery. When she entered the chambers, before the president arrived, she received a standing ovation. She also got a hug from Obama when he entered.
The funniest moment in the speech came when Obama was talking about the number of regulations he had eliminated to reduce the burden on businesses. He noted that one of those regulations required dairy farmers to spend $10,000 per year to prove that they could contain a milk spill, because milk was classified as oil.
"With a rule like that, I guess it was worth crying over spilled milk," Obama joked.